Management Tip: Taking the Lead on Setting Boundaries

Spread the News

Sam, who works on the East Coast, is frustrated with his West Coast counterpart, who frequently schedules late afternoon conference calls. Sam prefers earlier calls, so he can spend his evenings with his family.

Angela usually enjoys going out to lunch with her co-workers, but lately the conversations have been focused on politics. She has tried to change the subject, but inevitably it turns back to the upcoming election.

John hates the new open office configuration. He can barely finish a thought before someone comes over to chat about hockey.

What do these work scenarios have in common? They are all boundary issues and in today’s “always connected” culture, setting boundaries is becoming increasingly more challenging. Managers play an important role in setting department expectations, so it’s important they embrace the concept of workplace boundaries. It may also be necessary for them to train staff on how to successfully set boundaries.

“Boundaries are important because they clarify what is acceptable and what is needed in the workplace,” explains Annie Shaw, LPCS, an EAP counselor in the U.S. headquarters of Workplace Options, the world’s largest independent provider of employee support solutions. “We are all different and what is acceptable to one person may be unacceptable for another. Or what you need in order to be productive may differ for your co-worker. There is no way of knowing these things unless we discuss them openly.”

“Boundaries establish rules in the workplace and also help employees understand their individual roles and responsibilities. Therefore the organization works more efficiently,” adds Kouser Chowdrai, a London based EAP counselor at Workplace Options.  “In addition, by not setting or recognizing the importance of boundaries an employee can open themselves up to potentially to be taken advantage of, which is why self-care is so important. A lack of personal boundaries can often leave employees feeling exhausted and deflated,” explains Kouser.

In fact, a lack of boundaries can create a number of workplace issues including:

  • Miscommunication
  • Misunderstandings and conflict
  • Resentment
  • Decline in productivity or performance
  • Decline in performance
  • Harassment
  • Discipline or job loss

Below are several ways managers can help employees establish or re-establish boundaries at work.

Encourage conversations regarding boundaries.

Managers need to create an environment that encourages team members to set boundaries. This can be achieved by discussing the importance of boundaries during a series of team meetings or by hosting a training on setting boundaries. Managers should model what it looks like to set personal boundaries, as well as demonstrate respect for others’ boundaries.

Encourage employees to use effective communication.

Employees need to know that it’s important to be confident, clear and specific when establishing a boundary. They should also know how to professionally address a boundary being crossed. Managers should consider giving several examples, so employees have a script of sorts to follow. This would be particularly helpful to employees who struggle with communicating their own needs.

Encourage employees to be self-aware.

Managers can help employees identify boundaries by encouraging self-awareness. Employees should set boundaries based on what they need to be productive. For example, an employee says ongoing interruptions are preventing him from completing a project on time.  A potential solution might be to schedule a standing block of time each day when phones are sent to voicemail to allow for concentrated focus.

Employees should also consider how their own personal weaknesses may cross another’s boundaries. For example, someone prone to small talk needs to consider how that may impact an introvert. Someone with a voice that carries should consider potential challenges in an open office setting.

Encourage employees to distinguish professional relationships from personal ones.

Since most employees spend more time with their co-workers than their actual family or friends, it’s understandable that co-workers feel like family. However, it’s important for managers to set the tone that co-worker relationships are first and foremost professional relationships.

Managers can also help by sharing with employees specific guidelines for setting good boundaries at work, which could include the following:

  • Limit personal disclosures with colleagues. Instead, focus on building and maintaining a supportive and fun working environment that is conducive to everyone being productive and focused on achieving common goals.
  • Take time to get to know colleagues and the things that they need to feel supported on the job while also sharing your needs as well. For example: Environmental factors surrounding room temperature or noise quality could pose issues of concern.
  • Avoid engaging in “hot topic” discussions with co-workers.
  • If you are experiencing conflict with a colleague seek guidance from a supervisor regarding ways to resolve instead of engaging your colleague.
  • If you need confidential support on how to professionally handle a conflict with a coworker, contact your EAP.
  • Read self-help articles/blogs that focus on building relationships in the workplace.

Finally, it is important that managers reinforce their employers’ Human Resource policies that address potential boundary issues. For example, social media policies, sexual harassment and anti-bullying policies or dating policies could be reviewed regularly as part of a broader, ongoing conversation about workplace professionalism.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family and personal needs to become healthier, happier and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit